If you’re like me and not from Mississippi, and not paying close attention to every twist and turn in the Senate race that will be decided in Tuesday’s runoff, you mentally registered Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith’s public-hanging remark, but you may have assumed that it was controversial because it was awakening the ghosts of a long-dead past.
Then, out of curiosity, I googled Mississippi “hangings” or something along those lines over the weekend. It turns out that the last hanging of an African-American man in the state didn’t happen 60 years ago. It didn’t happen 30 years ago. It didn’t happen 10 years ago.
It happened in February. Of this year.
Willie Andrew Jones Jr., 21, was found hanging from a tree last Feb. 8. The county sheriff said it looked like a suicide. Jones and his girlfriend, who is white, had just been fighting, and he reportedly threatened to kill himself. But his mother didn’t believe it. Across the decades, as you might imagine, there’ve been quite a lot of “suicides” of black men in Mississippi.
So that’s the context in which Hyde-Smith made her “joke.” And now we learn over the weekend from the Jackson Free Press that Hyde-Smith graduated high school from a segregation academy. Of course she did.
If you aren’t clear on what these were, you ought to go give yourself a quick history lesson. After the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board in 1954, Southerners didn’t chiefly fight the decision in the courts. They fought it in the streets and the classrooms. They opened up hundreds of private schools—“freedom of choice academies,” I mean—that practiced open segregation. Some counties shut down their public schools entirely, or most of them. Whatever steps were necessary to ensure that white children didn’t have to suffer the unspeakable indignity of sitting next to or playing with a black child.
Americans today don’t understand how pervasive these segregation academies were, and they don’t get that it was the threat of school integration more than anything that politicized millions of “Christians.” As they did with the Civil War, Southerners have rewritten the history, with the media very often going along out of ignorance, to alter the narrative so that the great politicizing event that motivated evangelicals was Roe v. Wade.
But it wasn’t abortion. It was race—specifically, the threat that their white children would have to attend school with black children. Randall Ballmer, a Dartmouth historian, once quoted the key religious right organizer Paul Weyrich as remarking at a 1990 conference that he’d tried to get evangelicals mobilized around pornography, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, and abortion. “I was trying to get these people interested in those issues, and I utterly failed,” Weyrich said. Only race mattered (as the 1970s went on, evangelicals of course did become more mobilized by the abortion issue).
Around the time young Cindy Hyde was in high school, it’s interesting to note, even Mississippi was changing, along with the rest of the South. If nothing else, there were now hundreds of thousands of black people who could vote, so if you wanted their votes, you embraced their rights to some extent. Jimmy Carter was a classic “New South” governor—culturally conservative, fiscally moderate, and progressive on race. Mississippi’s governor in the early 1970s, William Waller, declared a state holiday in honor of Medgar Evers and did away with the infamous Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a kind of in-state intelligence agency that spied on civil-rights supporters.
In other words, there were white people in the 1970s, even in Mississippi, who were trying to change things. No one has yet unearthed a record of how Governor Waller’s moves went down at the Lawrence County Academy, where young Cindy Hyde was matriculating at the time. But maybe we can take a clue from the fact that the school’s mascot was The Rebel, in Confederate dress. And maybe we can take another clue from the fact that all these years later, Hyde-Smith sent her daughter to a nearby school that also originally opened as a segregation academy (yes, these schools do still exist, though typically they now have a few minority children).
They say that her Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, is running surprisingly close. Espy is African-American and he, too, has a history that tracks with the state’s and the nation’s past. His grandfather founded the society that operated the leading hospital for African-Americans in Mississippi in the Jim Crow years. He graduated from Howard. He went out to California for law school but returned to Mississippi to work as a legal-services attorney, a time-honored vocation for liberal lawyers.
He was elected to Congress from Mississippi in 1986, which made him the first black person to represent the state in the House of Representatives since Reconstruction. He was reelected three times, after which Bill Clinton made him Secretary of Agriculture. Clinton, another New South Democrat, saw that promoting people like Espy was one way to try to make up for a lot of bad history. Espy resigned amid “scandal,” for accepting inappropriate gifts. Four years and 20 million taxpayer dollars later, he was acquitted of everything, and the jurors lambasted the special prosecutor who went after him, a man whose name I won’t mention and who has rightly and blessedly disappeared from national public life.
Hyde-Smith beat Espy by just one percentage point on Nov. 6, but it was probably only that close because there was a third-party candidate of the right, Tea Partier Chris McDaniel, who got 16.5 percent of the vote. One has to assume McDaniel’s vote goes to Hyde-Smith.
But maybe Hyde-Smith crossed a line during the runoff campaign, with her hanging remark and another one blatantly endorsing voter suppression. Walmart and Major League Baseball have requested a refund of their previous donations.
Or maybe white Mississippians are just fine with sending to the Senate, in 2018, someone whose racial views don’t seem to have changed since she was a little girl growing up in a very different state.
Or is Mississippi really that different? Willie Jones’ mother probably doesn’t think so.
Mike Espy is holding his election-night event at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. Those walls tell the story of violence and resistance. Let’s hope on Tuesday night they hear applause and laughter after many long years of struggle.